On a Point of Information
The only people who should be shut out of a debate are those who haven’t informed themselves, argues TIM SQUIRRELL.
Last week, during a Union debate about single-sex colleges, someone stood up and told the audience that only women should be speaking on this topic, because only women are affected by it. Yesterday, comments on Tab, Telegraph and Daily Mail articles said that only men should debate the issue of national service, because only men are subject to conscription.
There are a few reasons that both of these arguments are flawed, and I’ll address them in turn. First, the majority of women do not attend single sex colleges. By the logic of the speaker’s argument (he was a man by the way – but that’s obviously immaterial), only women who had attended Murray Edwards, Newnham or Lucy Cavendish colleges, or who are applying to Cambridge and may potentially be pooled to one of those colleges, should be able to speak in that debate. That narrows the potential speaker pool down a lot.
Taking this argument to its logical conclusion, the only people who should speak in debates on abortion are women of child-bearing age who may want to have an abortion. Religious leaders should be excluded from the debate because their interests are not actually at stake; women who are staunchly pro-life and would never have an abortion regardless of the circumstances should be excluded because they’re not actually affected by the law, and indeed the majority of politicians should never speak on the subject either. The only people who’d be able to speak in such a debate would be pro-choice women who are capable of having children, because they are the only people any putative restriction on abortion would have a concrete effect on – other than unborn foetuses, whom we would also allow to speak.
Next, the problem with the national service argument is that the Parliamentary Bill wants to introduce national service for both men and women, a fact that anyone who read the Tab article properly would know (but those who read the Daily Mail or Telegraph articles wouldn’t; they conveniently left out that small fact). This is an absurdly easy point to rebut, and I expected better from people reading the Tab (which is probably where the majority of my self-esteem issues come from these days), though it’s par for the course for the Mail.
The more interesting and pernicious idea, which I’ve already alluded to, is that only those with strong vested interests in a subject should be allowed to speak on it. My gut response to the speaker on Thursday was ‘Of course the only people to debate a subject should be those who are most imminently and directly affected by it. That’s why, for our Immigration debate later this term, we have a panel entirely comprised of first-generation immigrants and members of the BNP.’ This idea is dangerous. Should we not be able to debate international relations because we don’t live in the countries affected? Should we not debate euthanasia if we have never had a family member with a terminal illness, begging for the right to die?
Whilst personal perspectives and lived experience have important things to contribute to any debate, they are just one perspective. No matter who they come from, good arguments are good arguments. The argument that national service inculcates a blind deference to authority within young people who should instead be educated to question and critique is relevant to the national service debate, no matter who it comes from. Our ideal debate should not be one in which we simply listen to someone because they have had experience of a situation or could be affected by the policy we’re mooting, but one in which background does not matter, only ideas and argumentation and analysis.
This almost exclusive emphasis on lived experience is problematic not just when we confront mouth-frothing, reactionary Daily Mail readers, but also in some situations which are much closer to home. When people are told to sit down and shut up within the context of a conversation about, say, feminism, it shouldn’t be because of their maleness or their straightness or their cisgenderedness; it should be because they don’t know what they’re talking about with respect to the topic at hand. Sometimes this might be because they haven’t had experiences which have forced them to become familiar – voluntarily or not – with a topic. But sometimes it will simply be because they haven’t done their reading, or had the argument before, or even thought about their opinions and where they come from and why they are the way they are.
Not all opinions are created equal, but that’s not because of fundamental characteristics that we can’t change, like race or gender or sexual orientation. It’s because some people have informed themselves, and others haven’t. Those are the only criteria on which we should exclude people from a debate.